Why wasn’t Barbie a domestic worker? Who cares?


Following her creation in 1959, Barbie leapt from toy store shelves into the hearts and minds of children all over the world.  Her position as an influential figure in American popular culture is undeniable, and her reach has been as expansive and varied as her résumé.  Despite holding a plethora of positions from doctor to rock star to astronaut, Barbie has never been a domestic worker. While domestic work may not have been one of the careers Mattel had envisioned girls dreaming of when Barbie began using her motto “We girls can do anything,” the company eventually did release a doll that was equipped for domestic work, but it was not marketed as such.

Mattel claims that the 1991 Jamaican Barbie wears “a costume native to her homeland”. As scholar Ann Ducille points out, `Jamaican Barbie’ is actually wearing a maid’s uniform, thereby presenting a deeply troubling caricature of  both Jamaica and domestic labor. Clearly there are racist implications behind the fact that domestic work is acceptable for this ethnic other, but not for Barbie herself to have as a career. Jamaican Barbie is the only doll to be depicted as a domestic worker, but that word does not appear in the doll’s name or official description. If it had, that would have spelled out even more troubling consequences for the ways in which Mattel depicts not only domestic work and people of color, but entire countries. Moreover, in overlooking the doll’s actual depiction as a domestic worker, Mattel contributes to the conventional wisdom of domestic workers as an invisible and silent workforce.

The world around us shapes our perceptions of domestic work and domestic workers. The  narrative of domestic work being devalued persists because value and prestige are conflated, suggesting that because domestic work is not prestigious, it is not valuable and vice versa. Barbie projects a specific vision of American upward mobility, aspiration and imagination, and domestic work does not fit the profile of the extravagant and extraordinary careers in which Barbie has dabbled over the years. The idea that domestic work is somehow inferior or less important benefits the State’s capitalist machinery that relies on the extraction of surplus value from low-wage and unwaged labor. In the current neoliberal political moment, the precarization and casualization of labor has proven a formidable obstacle in bringing about any consistency in the way domestic work is regulated, legislated, and salaried.

Add to this the lack of `universal understanding’ of what a domestic worker is or looks like. Ideas surrounding workers’ attitudes, abilities, and obligations are as varied as the workers themselves. While Mattel has a history of capitalizing on difference and constructing a form of multiculturalism that is palatable to consumers, it would be impossible to dress and market a domestic worker Barbie in a way that is accurate and respectful. Mattel would be hard-pressed to convey the nuance and variety in the forms of domestic work. Would consumers buy Childcare Barbie? Eldercare Barbie? Cleaning and Maintenance Barbie? Home Healthcare Worker Barbie?

We need to consider domestic workers not just as consumers, but also as agents who deserve more than to be held to Barbie’s standards of visibility and success. If having an official Barbie doll career outfit really mattered to domestic workers, wouldn’t they have asked for one by now? For domestic workers, life is neither plastic nor fantastic. They face a multitude of challenges with very real impacts on their everyday lives, ranging from lack of legal protection to separation from their families, to living with undocumented immigration status to physical and sexual abuse, and much more. In this context, Barbie would barely register as a priority.

(Photo Credit: The Barbie Collection)